Bible scholar advocated women in ministry, turned battle with cancer into testament of faith
David M. Scholer, a popular Fuller Theological Seminary professor and articulate advocate for women in the ministry who inspired others by showing them how to live with incurable cancer, died Friday at his Pasadena home. He was 70.
Scholer was diagnosed in 2002 with colorectal cancer. Even as he underwent harsh treatments and the cancer spread to other parts of his body, he continued to lecture and teach, turning his struggle with the disease into a testament for his faith that he shared in the classroom and from the pulpit.
A New Testament scholar, Scholer began every course by telling students he had terminal cancer. He hoped it would help them understand the debilities he could not hide: the once-booming voice made raspy by chemotherapy and other medicines, and the weakness and pain that forced him to lecture sitting down.
In 2005, he spoke about his experience with the disease to fellow parishioners at First Baptist Church of Pasadena in a sermon that often was as frank as it was moving, exploring his physical, emotional and spiritual challenges through personal anecdote, poetry and Scripture.
“Not all theologians benefit from their scholarship. There is a divorce between what they do as scholars and how they live as mere mortals,” said William Pannell, a senior professor of preaching at Fuller who knew Scholer for 30 years. “I thought David did a wonderful job of integrating his understanding of life in God and God in life.”
A native of Rochester, Minn., Scholer was born on July 24, 1938, and was ordained in the American Baptist Church USA in 1966. An authority on Gnosticism, he earned his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School in 1980. He taught at three other seminaries before joining the Fuller faculty in 1994.
His course “Women, the Bible and the Church” was one of Fuller’s most popular electives. Scholer showed how the New Testament could be read to support women as authority figures in the church. He delivered a message of tolerance and egalitarianism, encouraging skeptics to listen to the stories of women and homosexuals who felt the calling.
“I’ve had students tell me the course was a life-changing experience,” Fuller President Richard Mouw said. “In our evangelical world, we take the authority of the Bible seriously. Traditionally, women have been excluded from ordination and things of that sort. David really took the text seriously and led people through it to show them you can support God’s call to women in all calls to leadership, including ordination. That was a major contribution.”
Midway through teaching the class in 2002, Scholer learned he had cancer. He could have kept the grim news private but that would have been out of character. Scholer was a man who loved people. He sent birthday cards to colleagues and the children of colleagues, officiated at his students’ weddings and brought together people of various ages and denominations for regular “hymn sings” at his home.
Not sharing his struggle “wouldn’t have been David’s way,” said Marianne Meye Thompson, a New Testament expert at Fuller who knew Scholer for 20 years.
Three years into Scholer’s battle, his pastor, the Rev. Stephen Hasper, asked him to give a sermon about the realities of grappling daily with the cancer that had by then spread to both lungs. Scholer held little back. He admitted that on the first Sunday after his diagnosis he was so scared that he avoided his own church and attended services at one where he did not think anyone would know him.
He said that for a while he left Sunday services early, while the last hymn was being sung, because he “didn’t have the strength to have everybody ask me how I was doing.”
Scholer confessed that every morning after waking up he wished he could “have just one more normal day” and fought to find the will to keep going. He compared his disease to “having a terrorist bomb strapped on your back; you just don’t know when it’s going to go off.”
He also spoke of the dividends, if there could be any, in knowing that his fight might soon be over. He discovered the importance of memory, reveling every day in recollections of the people he met and loved, the places around the world he visited. “The joys and the achievements of the past don’t mean I live in the past,” he said, “but I do celebrate with gratitude what has been.”
As for faith, Scholer quipped that if he knew why a loving God allowed evil and suffering “I’d be on the cover of Time magazine next week.” But he concluded that God was “not the author or cause of evil” but the giver of life, so it was OK to fight for life, here and now.
“I’m quite frankly not somebody who says, ‘Oh, I can hardly wait until I die and can walk the golden streets.’ I don’t want to die! God is the giver of life! We should embrace it.” He called himself a prisoner of hope.
In May, tests showed that the cancer had spread to his brain. He underwent 20 radiation treatments but continued to weaken. Nonetheless, he finished teaching his course on women and the Bible, delivered a baccalaureate sermon for Fuller’s graduates, and participated in the services for his graduating doctoral students. He was set to officially retire Sunday.
He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Jeannette Scholer, who recently retired as director of academic programs at Fuller; two daughters, Abigail Scholer Strazzabosco and Emily Scholer Hernandez; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church of Pasadena, 75 N. Marengo Ave., Pasadena. Memorial donations may be sent to the David M. Scholer Scholarship Fund at Fuller Theological Seminary.
The church has filled hundreds of requests for recordings of Scholer’s sermon, “Prisoners of Hope: Living With Cancer.” An audio version is also available at archive.org.